Education: Reading matters for a captive audience: Prison libraries play a vital role in enriching the lives of inmates, says Stephen Tumim

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My recollection of Wandsworth Prison Library during my last full inspection in 1989 was of a rather dull operation that worked efficiently without inspiration. But the Escape with a Book project at the prison, which led to a Library Association/Holt Jackson Community Initiative Award, announced yesterday, has obviously transformed the library into a welcoming venue for exhibitions, talks and discussion groups on a variety of topics.

Such events are vital to the success of prison libraries, where the first and biggest challenge for the librarian is to persuade inmates that the library has something to offer them. Although the population is captive in one sense, it is made up of traditional non-library users from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, many of whom may have poor reading skills and are by no means a 'captive' clientele. Once they have been encouraged at least to visit the library, they can see the diversity of material available - novels, a wide variety of non-fiction books, magazines, 'talking' books and music cassettes.

It is at this stage that prison librarians encounter some of the other problems that make their task particularly difficult, although ultimately rewarding. Ensuring regular inmate access is a constant worry in many establishments where inmates have to be escorted to the library. A basic minimum requirement is for every inmate to have the opportunity to visit the library at least once a week. Sadly, this is not often achieved, and in under-staffed establishments the librarian faces a continuing battle to ensure library escort duty is given priority.

Other problems relate to restricted publications budgets and an ever-increasing range of required material. The demands of a multi-cultural population of varied reading ability must present difficulties when restricted by a budget. Although prison libraries are partly funded by the Prison Service Agency, libraries run by local authorities in which the prisons are located are supposed to match this funding as part of their services to the local community. Due to cutbacks in local authority finance, this does not always happen.

One other hurdle the prison librarian must overcome is ensuring co-operation from all the prison staff, making them realise the important part that libraries can play in the rehabilitation process. Teaching inmates to find something they wish to read, to read it and then to return the book on time, fosters a responsible attitude as well as helping them to pass the time. Choosing your reading for the week during a 15-minute library visit in the company of 10 others with the same aim in a confined space cannot be easy. The librarian needs to be on hand to advise on reading matter, answer inquiries, record any requests for items not held, and, of course, stamp the books very quickly.

Working in the library is usually a popular job in prisons. The orderlies are often enthusiastic about the library and keen to ensure books are looked after and returned on time. I will always remember the orderly at one local jail who claimed proudly that no one dared to return 'his' books past their due date and he knew which remand prisoners could be trusted not to damage the books and to return them on time.

Provision of library services to inmates on remand is a continuing problem. Some establishments are unwilling to let them use the library. This is a great pity and wrong, as they have the most time on their hands. They may also need to check the legal reference books held in the library.

Escape with a Book is a wonderful name for the project at Wandsworth Prison, conveying the aim of a prison library, which is to allow inmates to forget where they are.

Libraries are also an important resource for the prison education service; many of the more specialised book requests are for background reading for a general course or one leading to a qualification. Many libraries provide community or citizens advice-type information literature, which is in heavy demand from those about to leave custody or with families. Information about facilities at other prisons is also popular.

During prison inspections we see a wide variety of libraries, some undertaking similar ventures to Wandsworth. Many are coping with the problems and challenges I have mentioned, but others are not. All too often we find a well-stocked library with pristine books that are obviously not used because the inmates are unable to get to the library.

Other libraries have poor, outdated stock that does not reflect inmates' needs.

However, we frequently meet librarians and prison officers who are convinced of the importance of books in the rehabilitation process and do all they can to ensure that their resource is as well used as the one at Wandsworth.

The writer is HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales

The Library Association/Holt Jackson Community Initiative Award, part of National Library Week (1-7 Nov), aims to highlight the social role of libraries.

(Photograph omitted)